In a very plausible but generally unexpected turn of events, Germany has turned from an anchor of stability to a source of uncertainty for EU politics. After the election of Donald Trump, many turned to Angela Merkel as the next leader of the free world. Now, it seems likely that very soon that post will become vacant.
Since September, Germany has been locked in tentative coalition negotiations. An inconclusive election forced Merkel’s CDU to seek a three-way coalition government – four, counting the Bavarian sister party, CSU – with the pro-market Free Democrats and the environmentalist Greens. On Sunday night, FDP’s leader Christian Lindner walked out of the negotiations, citing insufficient concessions from the other parties and unbridgeable differences, namely on the immigration policy.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is currently urging the parties to face up to their responsibility to the German people and ensure stability and continuity by reconsidering their positions and eventually forming a government. However, this seems unlikely to make a difference. Merkel’s previous partners have generally suffered heavily in the polls after being associated with her politics. The Social Democrats, junior partner in a grand coalition government for the last four years, are determined to stay in opposition after a historically poor performance in September.
The two more likely scenarios at this point are both unprecedented for post-war Germany: either a minority government or a new election.
Theoretically, Merkel could lead a minority government, seeking ad hoc coalitions with different parties on various policies. Her CDU/CSU block’s plurality will ensure her appointment as a chancellor, and she could even partner up with the Greens. And although Germany is prosperous and stable enough to afford such wobbling, it would not bode well for the EU – its ambitious reformist plans after the election of Emmanuel Macron in France are not feasible without a stable government in Berlin.
Moreover, a second election will probably yield a result just as unsure as this one. Mainstream parties will likely be punished by voters for their inability to form a government, making subsequent coalition talks even harder. Only the far-right AfD has anything to win from a second poll, enhancing its presence in the Bundestag – but still, no other party will consider it as partner. Opinion polls since the last elections indicate no possible outcome that could break the stalemate.
Merkel herself has indicated that she would prefer renewed elections over a minority government and has made it clear that she is not planning to stand down from CDU leadership, although the immediate reaction to the negotiations breakdown news was speculation on the “end of her era.” However, the choice is up to Steinmeier. Although there is still no obvious contender to replace her at the helm of the CDU, she might still take the fall, seeing as her refugee policy in 2015 is considered as the main culprit for her party’s current predicament.
In Merkel’s 12 year tenure, Germany has assumed a leading role in Europe and beyond, spearheading major decision areas, from the economic and refugee crises, to Russian sanctions and climate change. As the continent’s biggest economy and a poster child of political stability, it has been the backbone of European integration. With that stability gone, there seems to be no other country to fill its shoes. If it is indeed the end of Merkel’s era, it’s unclear just what might happen next.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press